Riot psychology

In the coming weeks we can expect to see politicians and pundits lining up to give us their smash-and-grab clichés for the recent urban riots in the UK.

They’ll undoubtedly give a warm welcome to our old friends economic decay, disengaged youth and opportunistic crime, and those of a more psychological persuasion might name-drop ‘deindividuation’ – the process where we supposedly lose self-awareness and responsibility in large crowds.

This belies the fact that crowd behaviour is a complex area that is surprisingly poorly researched.

But what we do know about is the interaction between large crowds and the police and you could do much worse than check out the work of psychologist Clifford Stott who researches how crowds react to policing and what triggers violence.

In his 2009 report on the scientific evidence behind ‘Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing,’ commissioned by the UK constabulary, he summarises what we know about public disorder and how the authorities can best manage it (you can download it as a pdf).

He notes that the old ideas about the ‘mob mentality’, deindividuation and the loss of individual responsibility are still popular, but completely unsupported by what we know about how crowds react.

People don’t become irrational and they do keep thinking for themselves, but that doesn’t mean that the influence of the crowd has no effect.

In terms of policing, one of the clearest effects to emerge from studies of riots and crowd control is that an indiscriminate kicking from riot police can massively increase the number of people in the crowd who become violent.

This is probably because the social identity of people in a group is fluid and changes according to the relationship with other groups.

For those into academic jargon, this is known as the Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowd behaviour – a well-supported theory with an overly complicated name but which is surprisingly easy to understand.

Imagine you’ve just got on a bus. It’s full of people and you have to jam into an uncomfortable seat at the back. There are people going to work, some vacant students heading home after a night on the beers, some annoying teenagers playing dance music through their tinny mobile phone speakers and some old folks heading off to buy their groceries.

You’re late and you missed your train. You feel nothing in common with anyone on the bus and, to be honest, those teenagers are really pissing you off.

Suddenly, two of the windows smash and you realise that a group of people are attacking the bus and trying to steal bags through the broken windows.

Equally as quickly, you begin to feel like one of a group. A make-shift social identity is formed (‘the passengers’) and you all begin to work together to fend off the thieves and keep each other safe.

You didn’t lose your identity, you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.

The problem police face is that in most large threatening crowds only a minority of people are engaging in anti-social acts. Lots of people ‘go along for the ride’ but aren’t the hardcore that kick-off without provocation.

If the police wade in with batons indiscriminately, lots of these riot wannabes suddenly start to feel like they’re part of the bigger group and feel justified in ripping the place apart, mostly to throw at the coppers.

Suddenly, it’s ‘them’ against ‘us’ and a small policing problem just got much much bigger – like attacking a beehive because you just got stung.

The trick for the police is to make sure they’re perceived as a legitimate force. When they have to charge in, they’re doing so for a reason – to target specific criminals. The ‘them and us’ feeling doesn’t kick in because most individuals don’t feel that the police are targeting them. It’s the other idiots the police are after.

And herein lies the problem. The psychology of crowd control is largely based on the policing of demonstrations and sports events where the majority of people will give the police the benefit of the doubt and assume their status as a legitimate force.

Clifford Stott’s report has lots of advice for forces who want to establish and maintain this impression. The cops should start out in standard uniforms, should be scattered around the crowd and should make an effort to interact. If trouble looks like it’s brewing, non-violent folks should be allowed to leave and the police ‘have a word’ with the specific people involved. Force is only ramped up in proportion to the threat.

I’m no expert and I’ve been watching the UK riots from 5,000 miles away from the safety of Colombia (a sentence I never thought I’d write) but it strikes me that most of the rioters probably never thought of the police as a legitimate force to begin with.

This goes beyond establishing police legitimacy on the day and means many of the standard assumptions of behind crowd control probably don’t work as well.

But the fact that thousands of young people across the country don’t have faith in police is a much deeper social problem that can’t be solved through street tactics.

I have no easy answers and I suspect they don’t exist. Politicians, start your clichés.

Link to homepage of psychologist Clifford Stott.
pdf of ‘Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing’.

62 thoughts on “Riot psychology”

  1. Cheers Vaughan!

    I live not far away from one of the areas where rioting has taken place, I’ve seen the constant parade of police cars and vans passing through the place and thought it seemed more confrontational than ideal.

    As for the social precipitants, it’s only the international media (The World Service) I’ve heard discussing them.

  2. Great post, as usual!

    So the UK police tactic of “kettling” is probably singularly counterproductive, as I could cause the members of a corralled bunch of protesters to bond into a cohesive group. Interesting.

  3. Interesting piece.
    “But the fact that thousands of young people across the country don’t have faith in police is a much deeper social problem that can’t be solved through street tactics.”

    Is it just a reaction to the police or to authority in general? Maybe I’m projecting here, but it seems like we’ve been sliding towards customization and individual choice across the spectrum in society. I understand why we all love tailored environments but I wonder about the effects we miss when we accept being the center of our world.

  4. It’s all rather simple in’t. A Bobby or a pair of Bobbies armed with only batons, mace, radios and handcuffs are explicitly demonstrating that they are policing with the consent of the people. They have no other choice. They can pull out the worst offenders but otherwise must treat the crowd with respect.

    A riot squad in full armor, helmeted, shielded and wrapped in Kevlar does what an armored phalanx does since the Greeks invented the idea. It wades in and hits whatever it can reach. Guilt by impact.

    You put a riot squad on the street in anything but a static, defensive, positon and you’ve declared war on the local populace. The Britons have had 3000 years to absorb this lesson and it’s implications are passed on to anybody living in that culture.

    Fault is with the government.

    1. But doesn’t a vaccum of power or a lack of response by the police also trigger the same dynamic? Once the more passive members of a crowd see that the more aggressive leaders’ actions are successful or go unpunished, it encourages them to do the same.

  5. However, with the exception of the riot in Tottenham, these don’t seem to be riots as such. They are flashmobs organised by twitter.

    I’ve just read elsewhere that 10% of US shops/ businesses ( the details were unclear) have been robbed by flashmobs).

    1. Any support for that. I doubt its true at all.
      That’s a huge number. I live in Dallas and that sort of thing has only happen very very rarely.

  6. Sadly it’s only really “opportunistic crime” that’s getting a proper airing at the moment, along with “mindless thuggery” and variations thereof. Anything but mindless, as you point out. Thanks.

  7. Excellent and thought provoking post. As a former police officer with some experience civil disturbance in the 70’s (Notting Hill) and 80’s (Miner’s strikes) I believe that what you say about the individual experience in a crowd is true. It is also worth considering that police officers experience a similar phenomenon. They too are individuals used, in the most part to working alone or in pairs on the street. In a public order situation, they have to operate in a much more coordinated fashion and can also loose their individuality.

    Much work is done in training to prepare officers for this and to ensure that they still act responsibly and legally.

    1. Great point. It’s more than this – the same effect probably happens with the police too, as when they feel attacked, they bond together as a group and start “retributing”. I guess that’s the reasons why training is so important, to make sure that they react consciously instead of unconsciously.

  8. Unfortunately it’s not only the youth that have no confidence in the police, most adults don’t either.

    In a crazy society where we are enmeshed in a tide of ever complexifying, badly drafted and sometimes even contradictory laws few are the people who don’t break some law or another, often without even realising it.

    Even Daily Mail readers lost faith in our modern politicised police several years ago, ffs.

    We are in deep doo-doo.

  9. Hey Vaughan
    Great to see this, very well written and interesting. I saw it retweeted by Philippa Perry.
    Hope you’re keeping well, Cara (Maiden)!

  10. Great explaination. One question: “Lots of people ‘go along for the ride’ but aren’t the hardcore that kick-off without provocation”.

    Now, there have been studies to suggest that grafitti-ridden areas invite crime because the un-tended look of the place screams, “commit your crime here! Obvioiusly no one cares to keep up this neighborhood anyway”. I’d think a city with rioting would be this effect X10.

    Therefore the people “going along for the ride” in my mind are the most dispicable of all, wasn’t the riot started because of outrage over a man killed unjustly? Not defending the rioters, but really, the rest were just taking the opportunity to steal and commit violence. They’re criminals *and* cowards.

  11. All good points. Here are some more.

    Guerilla Warfare Manual states that “war against tyranny cannot be waged successfully until the tyrants present their true faces to the general populace”.

    In other words, appearances are reality to the general populace.

    Example A: Send a gang of corrupt, thieving thugs among civilians, but dress them all in nice, shiny uniforms, and initial reaction of the populace will be expectation of protection from the “police”. Never mind that “police” are actually individual thugs who just happen to be wearing “police” uniforms. “Police” is the concept, or appearance, that people see, and all conclusions are drawn from that appearance.

    Example B: Send a group of corrupt, thieving thugs to a position of power, but dress them all in business suits and ties, and make that place of power really, really nice and shiny. A big building with huge pillars and a giant door with a golden-plated sign above the entrance will be just perfect. Have the sign say something along the lines of “Government”, “Church”, or even “Bank”. That sign will become a concept that people will immediately connect with power and common benefit.

    So, the question is…

    If corrupt, thieving thugs can maintain their appearances for as long as they wish, how does one go about waging a war against them if majority of general populace is actually willing to die protecting those appearances?

    Why, of course! The only thing one has to do is put those corrupt, thieving thugs into any kind of situation that will force them to present their corrupted, thieving, thuggish faces to the general populace. They will appear as they are, and, again, appearances are reality for the general populace.

    Martial Law, for example, would be just that kind of situation. Increase the heat, up the stakes, and appearances start melting away.

    BTW, the concept works for any thugs exercising control over populations, really. It doesn’t matter if thugs call themselves “kings”, “emperors, “democrats”, “bankers”, or just plain “public servants”.

    The concept even works if thugs don’t call themselves anything, but simply pull strings from the shadows, hoping that no one will ever see them in the light of the day. That kind of thugs is the most interesting to study.

    Guerilla Warfare Manual also states that no guerilla army can fight a war without proper weapons. But since every guerilla starts with no weapons at all, the only way to fight guerilla war is by taking opponent’s weapons.

    In the end, for a successful guerilla warfare, one doesn’t really have to reverse-engineer some completely unknown piece of technology. One only needs functioning and usable technology at, or close to, the level of technology used by the opponent (preferably, made by the opponent himself).

    It’s a really simple concept, and it works for people and aliens alike.

    However, Guerilla Warfare Manual also states that for any regular warfare that may follow a successful guerilla warfare campaign, all recommendations found in Guerilla Warfare Manual should be tossed out the window.

    Regular warfare is a different game altogether.

    1. So, the rioters are /not/ regressive, violent slum dwellers and are really warriors for truth and freedom, waging a guerilla war against public expectations and the corrupt, thieving thug policemen to reveal that politicians in the seat of power are really corrupt thieving and thuggish?

      I’m not sure I get your point.

  12. Well, something more rational for a change. Yes, it’s all about tribes. We choose and bond with ours depending on what’s happening to us and those we love. I am 64 and feel closer to the rioters than the bleating politicians. Old enough to have seen it all before, I have never actually hurled a brick at a figure of authority – but I’ve often felt like it.

  13. Great post, great comments – oh! Anne Lewington, I’m in there with you, (at 60) & know just what you mean!

  14. Interesting post. However the complete inaction of the police could have even worse effects. TV footage showed clearly that while some rioters were breaking into shops, looting and then putting them on fire, police was just observing. That may push the affected population to tackle the problem with their own hands, as they start to distrust the police. It didn’t take long until the first group of vigilantes was formed in London. So, I agree that striking first is not a good idea for the police, but sitting back and watching is even worse.

    1. But in this case it’s pretty clear that the London police have done EVERYTHING wrong.

      They allowed themselves to become an occupying force in neighborhoods.
      They shot a citizen in unclear circumstances and then attempted a bungled cover-up.
      They assaulted the resulting, peaceful protest.
      Then they allowed rioters to rampage and responded with general assaults instead of targeted extractions.

      They might as well have handed out the molotov cocktails themselves.

      1. Have you considered that the Police were acting on orders? That their bosses didn’t want to accept a 20% funding cut, so a little bit of aggro in the streets is just what they need to get their funding back? The UK Police and other UK security forces are well known for agent provocateur tactics at peaceful demonstrations, trying to cause violence, so they have an excuse to bring in the riot squads and disperse legitimate protests, so it’s not like it would be a new tactic for them. The UK Police also obviously have the most to gain from these riots.

  15. I believe the police lost much of their credibility in the UK after the Miners strike. As a commuter during this period driving to work each day thru police road blocks where people were turned back just because there were 3 or 4 blokes in a car in case they were flying pickets, the rest of us started to see the Police as a direct tool of Goverment rather than an independant force to protect the public. It felt like we were in a Police state.
    Recently the Police have been seen to be taking bribes from journalists and turning a blind eye to obvious press wrongdoing, the Mps are shown as corrupt and self-seeking fraudsters.
    Im not condonning the violence and looting but all our ‘authority figures’ have been so tainted recently that its hard to have any respect for them. Unless the people in authority are prepared to take a long hard look at themselves and the image they are projecting the gulf between ‘them’ and ‘us’ will only widen.
    Cameron cannot say with a clear conscience that he thinks the thugs on the streets are sick when both he and Boris Johnson are on record as getting drunk and smashing up a club in their student days.
    I thought the comment from the policeman about the fact that they feel a similar crowd mentality was interesting; the majority do a good job Im sure but it only takes a small minority on either side to make huge waves.

  16. “In terms of policing, one of the clearest effects to emerge from studies of riots and crowd control is that an indiscriminate kicking from riot police can massively increase the number of people in the crowd who become violent.”

    If a gang of armed ppl surround and start randomly kicking another gang of men, it all gets a bit violent? You seriously needed studies to inform you of that fact??

    You talk about it all becoming ‘us and them’ in a riot situation. But you’re overlooking the fact that it’s always ‘us and them’, the haves and have-nots with the middle classes stuck between them, screaming hysterically, ears covered.

    If you wanna know what it’s about, instead of pseudospychological pondering on crowd theory, listen to this man –

  17. The observation that the way police treat crowdmembers forms the character of the crowd’s response is certainly a useful one to keep in mind, and seems to make sense. Certainly, I think it’s important in understanding the dynamics of the current crowds in Syria, for instance — the notion that there is an enemy being fought, that it’s a war against injustice is a powerful means of galvanising and consolidating a crowd’s resistance.

    However, I’m not sure it applies in this case. I think it is true to say that many of the rioters already consider police to be “the enemy” – this you say towards the end of your article. Perhaps this was an important dynamic at the beginning of the riots (when a gangmember was shot by an officer of the law), and perhaps helps to maintain the energy of these criminals in some small part. However, I don’t think that this assessment of the mindset of the *current* rioters is accurate.

    In many of the reports thus far, the journalists have expressed surprise that the London police forces simply stood back and didn’t intervene. Where they did, the looters seemed merely to scatter and use technological means of assembling somewhere else to steal and vandalise.
    Indeed, the fact that the violence was directed towards local businesses is important, I think. The “us and them” mentality towards the police does little to explain that the main thrust of the violence hasn’t been towards the police themselves, who have been scrambling to react to aggression committed more or less spontaneously, where law enforcement is absent.

    In my mind, it is not a case of “disconnection”, anomie or random brute violence. No, the problem is that the people rioting are very much a part of a community, but one which seems to resent or don’t care about the mainstream of society. Why else would they consider it their right to take what they wish, in an organised and collective fashion? They destroy and shout and yell because they don’t feel themselves to be a part of mainstream society, and have been raised in an environment where it is to be ignored, as it ignores them, excepting to admonish.

    So, I think we necessarily need to consider “our old friends economic decay, disengaged youth and opportunistic crime.” – this isn’t a response to police violence.

    If I were more politically minded, I might seek to explain this in terms of the weakening of a highly stratified class system. You make wage slaves of a class of people, keep them tightly under the thumb of the establishment and give them precious few means of advancement or self-improvement, and then when they are given some more freedom and leeway – look what happens! Why would you expect a people who have learned to look forward to nothing to behave as responsible and well behaved citizens?

    Though, I think it’s a very long bow to draw — and a little too romantic for my blood. I’m not educated enough to make the case properly.

    Much as you, though, I observe from 10,000 miles away in Sydney — and these thoughts are composed off the cuff. But still, I don’t think the dynamic of these events can be described merely in terms of the microcosmic crowd behaviour, but wants considering on the level of demographics and sociology.

    Interesting article, though! Evidently food for thought wholesome enough to satisfy my dietary requirements!

  18. Interesting article, but there seems to be different stuff going on in different places across England right now (well maybe not right now – the rain we had last night really did seem to quell the looting, judging by the lack of copters and sirens last night – although I haven’t yet read the news…). Not clear that the same explanation is going to fit all pockets of rioters. Moreover, you’re a bit quick to dismiss those boring old social explanations. Unfortunately, it’s those huge inequalities, social decay, lack of prospects that ‘we’ never manage to sort out.

  19. Well said, Neil Paterson (Pater-son? – isn’t every male born one of these?) Rem acu tetigisti, as Jeeves so often proclaimed!

  20. This falls apart where you say you’re watching from Columbia. To base anything on TV footage is inherently flawed.
    You must have been on a demonstration and then gone home and watched it on the news. It often (especially if violence was involved) bears no resemblance to your experience.
    Even if the camera crews that recorded the event chose the same viewpoints that you’d had the footage would have been edited (censored) down from several hours to a few seconds.
    TV footage is not reliable enough to make judgements on events.
    Even the ‘rioters’ cannot be judged as to their view of the police. No-one has yet revealed (through the media) who these people are. The only hypoyheses on offer arethat they are the ‘disposessed’, greedy rioters stealing because they want more, gangs or opportunists. No-one really seems to know! I haven’t seen any of the ‘perpetrators’ interviewed.
    Theories are all very well but they need to be based on something more accurate than heavily edited media material.

  21. “… Guerrilla Warfare Manual states that “war against tyranny cannot be waged successfully until the tyrants present their true faces to the general populace”…”

    Nice one “Anyone” – are you suggesting that we are a tyranny? I think we are more like a self elected oligarchy, certainly not a democracy along Athenian lines (The last one of those was South Africa under the Boars).

    You have a valid point though – classical revolutionary theory says that – in order to incite a revolution, you have first to destroy the legitimacy of the ruling elite in the eyes of the mass of the people, especially the middle classes, who in a modern state supply the cash (tax revenues) and bureaucrats to run the state.

    Among the ways of achieving this is 1) always to refer to the elite in disparaging terms (as you do in your post) and 2) provoke suppressive overreaction by the forces of law and order, so that they are seen as “the enemy” by your target constituency and so, by extension, their bosses (the governing elite) also become “the enemy”.

    Taking advantage of legitimate social protest to inflame the situation and provoke indiscriminate violence by the police is a well used tactic, that worked very effectively in the initial phases of the Norther Irish troubles.

    Luckily there are counters to this gambit, which some in government may remember in time, so revolution is not inevitable.

  22. Two reasons young men cause trouble.
    1. They are genetically designed to (they are the ones who fight to protect the tribe)and most normal young men enjoy a bit of violence(usually done by someone else on screen in modern society).
    2. Those who are violent against their own society are living at just below boiling point most of the time and have nothing to lose when that point is reached.

    The reasons for the first are biological and unchangable.
    The reasons for the latter are down to a personal history of failure, discrimination and neglect within the system.

  23. Totally disagree with mindhack viewpoint on this one. People better read theodore dalrymple’s writing on the riots to better comprehend about the subject matter.

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